Posted on | April 24, 2013
Written by | W.R. Tish
Granted, Americans are still (happily) living in a Chardonnay world. At the same time, though, Sauvignon Blanc is emerging as a real player in the white wine arena. Ac-cording to Nielsen, Sauvignon Blanc grew faster than the total wine category in U.S. in 2012, and while still trailing Pinot Gri-gio, it grew even faster than that varietal wine both in value (+13.3% vs. +8%) and volume (+11.9% vs. +8%).
But set aside the stats for a moment and consider these three leading white table wines. Chardonnay is the winemaker’s grape, easily molded no matter where it is grown; it may be too big to fail, but diffi-cult to define. Pinot Grigio’s calling card is its simple character—pleasant and palat-able but rarely distinguished at its typically low price point. Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, has come to be demonstrably place-driven. Classic French examples such as Sancerre check in as lean, herbaceous and minerally. New Zealand bottlings pack aggressive, often one-dimensional punch. Meanwhile, California produces quite a bit of Sauvignon Blanc, but how many excellent ones retail under $20?
And then there is Chile, where—in a remarkably short time span—Sauvignon Blanc seems to have found a happy sweet spot. Planted in the country’s cooler regions, we are seeing a plethora of wines that strike a Goldilocks balance: aromatic without being too pungent; citrusy but not just grapefruity; ripe and juicy yet still fresh. Even at modest price points, these crisp, unoaked whites are earning attention, both as great values and great food companions.
Johnny Slamon, wine director at Alexander’s in San Francisco, has had Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc on the wine list for more than a year. He likes the Southern Hemisphere in general for value, and Chilean Sauvignon Blanc for its “clean aspect”—and the fact that it’s “not over the top with green.” He finds the fresh, un-oaked style of the Veramonte to be es-pecially versatile with the restaurant’s first courses, which reflect a distinct Japanese influence and range from oysters, ceviche and sashimi to salads and grilled octopus.
KEEPIN’ IT COOL
The common denominator driving quality in Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is cool climate. Valleys that are effectively air-conditioned by breezes off the Pacific are credited with helping optimize the variety’s naturally zesty acidity as the grapes ripen slowly. Interestingly, advantageous conditions are found in multiple parts of the long, nar-row country. In Casablanca Valley, generally recognized as the “hot spot” for cool, fog adds an extra measure of sun-shielding insurance. San Antonio Valley and its sub-region of Leyda are closer to the coast, benefitting even more directly from the breezes. Lolol Valley, a sub-region of Colchagua, runs east-west, resulting in a beneficent funneling effect.
Perhaps the most important factor in assessing the state of Sauvignon Blanc, viticulturally, in Chile is the fact that growers and wineries are still in the discovery stage. The success of cool-climate Sauvignon Blancs, many from vines less than a decade old, is literally inspiring the search for yet new temperate pockets. And this “cool” discovery is being embraced by new and generations-old wineries alike. To wit, Casa Silva’s “Cool Coast” bottling, made at a winery founded in 1892, is only in its third vintage.
TASTING IS BELIEVING
At a tasting of 20 current-release Sauvignon Blancs arranged at the Wines of Chile offices in New York, I came away with a strong impression that these wines share a family resemblance, best characterized as clean and refreshing. No doubt, firm acidity is at the core of this kinship, but there was more to it than simply tang. The acidity seems to be less of a flavor in and of itself (as I see happen typically in New Zealand examples), and more of a flavor carrier. Indeed, there was a sense of family, but not of sameness.
In practically every wine, I found multi-note aromas and flavors; the zesty structure was a foundation. Moreover, the flavors seemed well-concentrated, enabling the wines to deliver flavor above their medium-weight body. And with prices generally under $20, the wines represented excellent value. This ability to over-deliver on both flavor intensity and price, combined with the relative youth of the Sauvignon Blanc sub-industry in Chile, bodes very well for the future. Simply put, as American tastes continue to develop and seek out zesty, flavorful Sauvignon Blanc, Chile is in a perfect position to satisfy our thirst.